‘New Tales from the Borderlands’ is more Gearbox than Telltale

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With brightly colored outfits, high-tech goggles and wheelchairs aplenty, the three main characters in “New Tales from the Borderlands” are certainly up to the task. And as their journey through a sewer (in search of one of the series’ mystical vaults, of course) gives way to “Metal Gear Solid”-inspired shenanigans and a duel to the death with a guard involving action figures instead of guns, it also feels the role. It’s definitely a successor to “Tales from the Borderlands,” Telltale’s surprisingly spectacular spin-off of a series not generally known for its history.

But something is missing.

It’s hard to put your finger on what, exactly, as the action takes place during a virtual demo presented by Gearbox, the studio handling development after spin-off initiator Telltale, who died in 2018, then ( sort of) income the following year. The setup calls back to the original “Tales from the Borderlands” while featuring a new cast: Anu, Octavio, and Fran, three lovable losers who would likely be background NPCs in a standard first-person shooter “Borderlands”, bumble, stumble and weave their way through the machinations of evil capitalists and a planetary invasion on the worst day of their lives. There are plenty of jokes and jokes. There are dialogue choices, quick events, and mini-games. Octavio, the main male protagonist, exudes a certain confidence in being humiliated that is reminiscent of previous “Tales” frontman Rhys, except he’s streetwise rather than corporate.

But everything hits a little differently. Perhaps it’s due to the sheer amount of meta-jokes referencing “Borderlands”, character archetypes, and other video games – the sauce liberally poured over the scenery feasts of standard “Borderlands” games that the original “Tales” recalled (slightly) in favor of more self-contained character-driven shenanigans. Maybe that’s the look: darker, darker, and dirtier, to bring “New Tales” in line with the 2019 mainline series entry “Borderlands 3.” Perhaps it’s the absence of Telltale’s signature “so and so will remember” when making a decision that resonates deeply – for better or worse – with another character.

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It’s a fine line to walk, echoing a beloved cult hit while charting a new course. But those responsible for the new team creating “New Tales” say the differences are very intentional. The lack of a “so-and-so will remember” prompt is a good example. On the one hand, Telltale’s signature line pushed players into headspace to consider what other characters might think of them; it propelled the imagination with little more than a brief line of text. On the other hand, it gave some choices more weight than they necessarily deserved.

“This notification reminds you of [your decision], but also from what we observed, people tended to think those were the most important choices – the most important ones – and in the process it potentially undermined all the other choices you make,” Gearbox production manager James Lopez told The Washington Post. “One of our mottos when creating this game is that every contribution is a choice, and every choice matters. It’s kind of hard to celebrate that idea if we’re still using notification, so instead we have invested more in a range of consequences.

Additionally, “New Tales” runs on the Unreal Engine instead of Telltale’s old herky-jerky tech, allowing Gearbox to use a suite of motion-capture tools to bring the faces and bodies of its characters. So the hope is that players will no longer need a prompt to let them know when characters think they’ve done something cool (or incredibly stupid).

“Performance capture lets you understand, ‘Oh, that had an impact!’ “, said the Quebec producer of Gearbox Studio, Frédéric Scheubel. “If you’re in a hurry, like in real life, you don’t immediately have the weight of the consequences in front of you. The performance capture allowed us to present it without cues. It allowed us to do that with our actors and their acting.”

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While the brief, roughly 20-minute demo was heavier on sewer caving and gags than heartfelt character growth, Lopez and Scheubel said character relationships are still at the heart of this game — more so. than what the team expected at the start of development. The reason is, oddly enough, the pandemic. The script for “New Tales” was written before covid-19 sent us all rushing into our own vaults for security reasons, forcing rewrites so that the mocap scenes could be shot over a period of 14 months without endangering the actors.

“We had fight sequences where the idea was to have, like, eight to twelve people on set, which was a lot even before the pandemic,” Lopez said. “So the pandemic happened, and there could have been talk for us of halving the cast – the cast count, not the actual cast. It would be a crime.

But instead of committing a crime against the script (or the human actors), the “New Tales” team focused on rewrites that gave the story a more intimate focus.

“We have three playable characters, and most of the time it’s them plus someone else,” Lopez said, explaining that shoots usually have only five actors. “So it felt like these three characters were going to become very close to each other; we should probably think of the story through that lens. … It became a lot more of a story of family and unconditional love the for each other despite your flaws.

With these unique constraints in mind, it’s no surprise that “New Tales” gives off a vibe that’s part Tales, part Borderlands, and part its own. That said, Gearbox seems determined to maintain a direct line with the original “Tales,” if not with cameos (Lopez and Scheubel said this one will have a “98% new cast”) and then with the help of former members of Telltale’s staff – something the company has repeatedly touted. It’s logic; the original was a narrative-only project whose sensibilities were born out of a relatively small and specific group of people.

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However, Gearbox has been particularly wary of any ex-“Tales” tracks, if any, that are attached to the project. The Washington Post contacted several senior editors of the original “Tales”, all of whom said they were not involved or did not respond. Many of the game’s main writers, years later, are now listed as having full-time jobs at studios like Remedy, King, and Netflix-owned Night School. A former ‘Tales’ frontman who chose to remain anonymous out of concern over possible retaliation says Gearbox only reached out to his current company to say it wasn’t working on “NewTales”.

“Our only contact with Gearbox was that they asked us to release a statement that we weren’t working on it when there was a rumor that we were,” the former ‘Tales’ exec said. “We responded to them asking them to discuss before releasing a statement, but they basically froze us. [who] put a lot into the project, I was hoping we’d be able to get a glimpse of their plans, but it was radio silence after that.

In response to repeated inquiries about the specific “Tales” writers who contributed to “New Tales,” Gearbox said only that Bruner House — the new studio headed by Telltale founder Kevin Bruner, whose management style would have contributed to crunch and burnout – was “integral to getting this game off the ground” and that “many alumni of Telltale Games’ original narrative team for ‘Tales from the Borderlands’ teamed up with Gearbox and worked on Bruner House’s narrative engine, Beanie, also provides scaffolding for “New Tales.”

Lopez and Scheubel say they’ve done their best to avoid Telltale’s managerial missteps while working on “New Tales,” whose October launch is just around the corner.

“The development process, we focused on healthy energy,” Scheubel said. “The whole studio was mostly working nine-to-five throughout the project. Even landing this title right now, we have people on vacation. That’s the feeling we want. That was my priority on the side. of development.